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A renewed joy and love of teaching

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MAXWELL
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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 22, 2002


SAN ANGELO, Texas -- When an official at Angelo State University telephoned me more than a year ago and asked if I had interest in being a visiting professor during the fall semester of 2002, I told him I would have to think about the proposition and would get back to him.

I was not interested in teaching.

After all, I had quit college teaching in 1994 to join the St. Petersburg Times editorial board because I no longer could muster the energy to face another group of unsmiling undergraduates who hated being forced to take required English courses.

I had had enough of trying to convince grown-ups, many of them rich brats, that reading was good for them, that learning writing skills would give them advantages they would appreciate in later years.

The joy had gone out of teaching, and I had to leave the profession.

When I did not respond within a few weeks, the Angelo State professor telephoned again. This time, he shared ample details about the job. I accepted, contingent, of course, upon the Times' approval. I accepted because university officials and faculty liked my work enough to invite me to be their colleague for a semester. To turn them down would have been disrespectful and arrogant.

My Times' bosses gave me the go ahead, and here I am in West Texas. I am happy that I came.

Spending more than eight years writing full time has given me a renewed love of teaching. Doing what I teach -- writing -- makes all the difference. Instead of using the work of other writers as prose models in my journalism class, for instance, I now lead students through my process of crafting columns, editorials and essays.

The students do not have to guess: The author sits in front of them.

My enthusiasm shows, and the students respond positively. But my enthusiasm alone would not matter if the students were not talented, ready learners. And they are. Nearly all had published at least one article or column before we met. Some are on the university newspaper staff; others write for the local daily, the Standard-Times.

They are engaged. They are uninhibited. I do not have to prod them into participating in class. They are talking before I enter the classroom, and they continue talking up to the moment I begin to lecture.

Best of all, a few boldly attempt creative ways of making the potentially stodgy opinion piece an entertaining experience both for themselves and for their reader -- me.

Their first writing assignment was an editorial about recent police killings of civilians here in San Angelo. I am impressed with their efforts. Some of the editorials could be published in the state's best newspapers. In short, this is the best group of journalism students I have had anywhere.

My literature course, Ethnic Contributions to American Literature, is as rewarding as the opinion writing course. We are reading African-American authors and studying African-American films. The works, such as Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple and Spike Lee's film Bamboozled, take inward looks at black culture.

These works are not attacks against whites. They represent unapologetic introspection. The Color Purple is a graphic portrayal of black men's cruelty toward black women. Lawrence Otis Graham's memoir Our King of People describes the ugly skin-color caste system among African-Americans.

Most of the students are white, and many have told me that a new world has been opened to them. Until now, they had not given a thought to exposing themselves to black culture.

"I'm ashamed to say black stuff didn't exist to me before taking this course," a student said. "It was another world. I was born and raised in West Texas. We don't have many blacks out here."

As a teacher, I am experiencing the pure enjoyment of facilitating real learning, introducing students to information and conversation they otherwise would shun. I watch some suddenly sit back in their chairs in wonder.

Imagine my delight when a student uttered these words to me in my office: "I'm becoming less judgmental of black people. I guess I'm learning some things. Believe it or not, Mr. Maxwell, you're my first black teacher. I never had one in public school, either."

For the first time in many years, I feel useful. I have rediscovered the value and the joy of teaching.

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